By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost
FROMBERG – Thirty-seven point six miles from Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium in Billings lies a remote, skinny gridiron few beyond the communities of Fromberg and Grass Range give a real Big Sky high school football hoot about.
The real grass on the field is healthy green enough, which might be best explained by the fact that 12, not 22 boys are stomping down on the turf at any one particular moment on Saturday afternoons.
Take a dozen, divide by two teams, and you have Montana six-man high school football at Falcon Field in Fromberg down along the Clark Fork River on a recent autumn weekend. Many in Billings hear snippets about the scaled-down version, but to get a small grandstand look one must travel down to Fromberg, or its co-op sister school across the hills in Roberts.
Farther south in Bridger, west over to Reed Point/Rapelje and the opposite direction to Custer are more pockets of six shooters. They also play the game up in Judith Gap, meshing three communities together there.
About 25 other tiny rural spots scattered across the state play the minimum-man game (eight-man is also played in Montana). Ironically, says Bridger head football coach Mike Mathis, six-man competition in the state is pretty healthy, for the moment, due to eight-man teams having to drop down to six-man as many rural school enrollments diminish.
Co-oping helps, says the six-year coach. Bridger doesn’t have to hook up with another town for now, but did when they played eight-man ball. But there’s no such thing as four-man high school football and chances are never will be.
Grass Range/Winnett came down to battle Fromberg/Roberts and the visiting Rangers boys were happy just to be playing. Last year only four came out for the team, so they had no team, no season in 2012. This year for the first time anybody remembers Fromberg couldn’t field a middle school team.
No players coming up could mean meager reinforcements for the varsity in the future. Only eight Fromberg kids are on this year’s co-op team.
Fromberg school superintendent Terri Harris says there’s nothing like small town support for high school athletic teams, and Fromberg is no exception. She hopes football doesn’t vanish in her town.
“I am concerned, it’s always a concern, having enough students to have a football team here,” Harris said. “And that’s because football and all the sports we have are very important to our community. But our enrollment does play a role.”
Harris said eight students will graduate from Fromberg this year.
The strong support despite a dwindling population is reflected in Fromberg resident Shirley Knutson, who still attends all Falcon home games.
Her seven sons all played six-man football, the last graduating in 1995. But she says after they went on their ways following high school, not one stayed to raise a family in Fromberg.
Knuston’s good friend Lauretta George also comes to all the games; they sit side by side. She has three sons, all Falcon footballers. Same thing, none stayed in the farm and ranch lands of Fromberg.
The ladies will support regardless but what they see entertains because of the game’s setup and rules. Fields are only 80 yards long and 40 wide. All six players are eligible on offense to run and catch the ball, centers included.
The receiver of the snap must pass or hand the ball off; he cannot take off and run against spread-out defenses. Fifteen yards makes a first down, not ten.
Translation: there are lots of open spaces to run and pass. Athletic kids have a blast, slower linemen-types not so much. Not too many 10-8 scores, plenty of high number finishes, especially for a superior team going against a lesser opponent.
And that was the case in the recent Fromberg/Roberts vs. Grass Range/Winnett tilt, with the visitors romping the locals 55-6. But Superintendent Harris and seemingly all of the town of Fromberg stayed to the very end, all the way down to the three-second mark of the final quarter when tiny 124-pound Duncan Devries dove across the goal line for the Falcons’ only score.
Big cheers from the home side when scrappy No. 15 hit pay dirt. Even the visitors on the other side seemed to cheer the never-quit effort by all.
Just happy to be playing football on nice green grass.